Azerbaijan, Georgia and Armenia – The Edge of Europe
|BETWEEN||Baku and Yerevan|
|COUNTRIES VISITED – 3||Azerbaijan, Georgia and Armenia|
|MAXIMUM GROUP SIZE||12|
|WHATS NOT INCLUDED||
The Caucasus region occupies an unusual position both geographically and culturally, intertwining elements of Russia, Persia, the Ottoman Empire and Central Asia. This comprehensive tour visits Azerbaijan, Georgia and Armenia, formerly tucked away within the Soviet Union but now easily accessible to the curious traveller. The highlights here are diverse. Azerbaijan and its unique geological phenomena – flaming mountains and bubbling mud volcanoes, unique mountain communities and historic towns where villagers welcome us into their homes with traditional Azeri hospitality. In Georgia we head into the High Caucasus Mountains, visiting the mythical Mount Kazbek, then move on to Mtskhehta, the spiritual heart of the country with some stunning UNESCO listed monuments. FromKutaisi with its striking religious buildings to the wild and untamed land of Svaneti, one of Europe’s most isolated and traditional areas with unique villages and way of life and some of Europe’s finest scenery. Armenia offers ancient monasteries that date back to the emergence of Christendom and some of Europe’s most traditional ethnic groups in Kurdish and Yazidi villages where lifestyles have changed little for centuries. Uncover the secrets of a truly enchanting corner of Europe.
Note: Extend your trip with a 3 Day extension visit to the independent republic of Nagorno Karabakh, a country unrecognised by most of the world. Please contact us for more details
Azerbaijan, Georgia and Armenia – The Edge of Europe
The highlights here are diverse; we start in Azerbaijan and visit its unique geological phenomena – flaming mountains and bubbling mud volcanoes – which has given rise to the nickname ‘land of fire’. In the mountains we visit unique communities and historic towns packed full of ancient mosques and mausoleums where the past never seems too far away and villagers welcome us into their homes with traditional Azeri hospitality. Moving into Georgia we head into the High Caucasus Mountains, visiting the mythical Mount Kazbek, reputedly the site of the Greek fable to Prometheus, then move on to Mtskhehta, the spiritual heart of the country with some stunning UNESCO listed monuments. Heading west we stop at Kutaisi with its striking religious buildings, then return once again to the mountains and the wild and untamed land of Svaneti, one of Europe’s most isolated and traditional areas with unique villages and towering summits. Here we meet the Svan people to learn about their unique way of life, and enjoy some of Europe’s finest scenery. Armenia offers ancient monasteries that date back to the emergence of Christendom, and in Dilijan we wander around the old centre and meet the Molokan people, one of Europe’s smallest, but most traditional ethnic groups. We discover the stunning churches of Echmiadzin and visit Kurdish and Yazidi villages where lifestyles have changed little for centuries, uncovering the rich cultural heritage of this complex but fascinating part of the world. At the dramatically located monastery of Geghard we see ancient religious treasures, and in the area around Garni we spend time in a local village as guests of a family, where we are treated to a typical Armenian meal in a traditional setting.
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Day 1 – Baku
Arrive in Baku and transfer to the hotel. The rest of the day is free to relax or explore. Overnight Central Park Hotel or similar.
Baku is a city with a split personality. Sitting on the edge of the Caspian Sea its fortunes have long been tied with the discovery of oil, and in the early 19th century the city provided half of the world’s petroleum. This boom led to a massive programme of construction, and in the streets of Baku today the visitor can find grand mansions and elaborate religious buildings harking back to the days of the ‘oil barons’. Today this continues, with Baku in the midst of transforming itself into a city of the future – glittering glass faced buildings sprout up in the centre, their designs modern and brash, and some call Baku the ‘Dubai of the Caucasus’. Look beyond this though and you will find a much older city in the Icheri Sheher, the traditional quarter characterised by winding alleys and hidden mosques, bounded by robust city walls. It is here that you will find some of Baku’s most interesting monuments including the enigmatic Maiden’s Tower, which features on just about every piece of tourist literature about Baku – stretching almost 30 metres into the sky its origins are unclear but have given rise to many theories. The Shirvanshahs’ Palace dates back to the 15th century, a large walled complex of domed roofs and quiet mausoleums that was the seat of rule in centuries past, while outside old caravanserais attest to the importance of Baku on the old Silk Road. One of the few cities in the region to have escaped the predations of the Mongols, Baku is a fascinating juxtaposition of ancient and ultra-modern, reinventing itself but not forgetting its heritage.
Day 2: Baku
Spend today exploring Baku. We visit the National Museum and the historic quarter with buildings dating back to the 14th century including ancient caravanserais, mosques, the Palace of the Shirvanshahs and the enigmatic and mysterious Maiden’s Tower, among other sights. Overnight Central Park Hotel or similar. (B)
Day 3: Absheron Peninsula - Gobustan
Head out of Baku to the fascinating Absheron Peninsula with its ‘flaming mountain’, Yanardag, and the Temple of the Fire Worshippers at Ateshgah. From here we head to Gobustan, known for its prehistoric rock art and unique mud volcanoes. Return to Baku for the evening. Overnight Central Park Hotel or similar. (B)
Jutting out into the Caspian Sea, the Absheron Peninsula is home to some of the country’s finest sights, all within a day trip from Baku. One of the most unusual is the ‘flaming mountain’ of Yanardag, another of Azerbaijan’s bizarre geological features where natural gas seeps from the rock, accidentally ignited in the 1950s and burning to this day. At Ateshgah, the ‘temple of the fire-worshippers’ surrounds an eternal flame, another reminder of why this country is often called the Land of Fire. In Mardakan a fine medieval fortress stands, dating back to the 12th century and part of the defensive system of the peninsula, while all around the area smaller shrines, caravanserais and palaces attest to a rich history.
Gobustan is known for two very different things. Designated as a UNESCO World Heritage Site, the rocky landscape holds a number of rather impressive petroglyphs depicting warriors, boats, camel caravans and battles dating back between several thousand years, as well as the remains of settlements and ancient burial sites. Equally impressive though are the mud volcanoes – there are almost four hundred here which represent about half of the world’s total. Gases bubble up through the mud and belch their way to the surface, and every few years flames erupt from the earth. This is a rather otherworldly place and a real pleasure to explore.
Day 4: Guba – Krasnaya Sloboda
Head north to the town of Guba. On the way we stop at the mountain of Beshbarmag, a natural fortress that is a local site for pilgrimage. From here we continue to the town of Guba and spend some time exploring its sights including the Sakina Khanum Mosque and the medieval baths. We then head to Krasnaya Sloboda, a unique town populated almost entirely by Azerbaijan’s small Jewish population. Return to Guba in the evening, stopping at the traditional village of Xinaliq on the way. Overnight Terrace Hotel or similar. (B)
The village of Krasnaya Sloboda is unique for Azerbaijan and perhaps one of the few places outside of Israel to have an almost entirely Jewish population. Once home to eleven synagogues, after the repression of the Stalinist era it now sports just two, one of which holds a two hundred year old copy of the Torah encased in silver. The origins of the village are uncertain with some believing that the original inhabitants emigrated from Iran to escape persecution in the 17th century, while others hold that they were Khazars who chose Judaism in order to remain neutral during feuds between Islamic and Christian communities.
Day 5: Shamakha – Lahic - Qabala
Continue to Shamakha, visiting the 13th century mausoleum of Diri Baba in the village of Maraza en route. At Shamakha we visit the historic mosque, the seven tombed mausoleum of Yeddi Gumbaz, and the graveyard of the Shirvanshahs. From here we drive to the traditional village of Lahic with its old mosques, cobbled streets and craftsmen, and then continue to Qabala for the evening. Overnight Qabala Karavansarai or similar. (B)
One of the oldest towns in Azerbaijan, Shamakha was once the regional capital and a major centre for trade and commerce. It was the base and key city of the Shirvanshahs – the rulers of the area – from the 7th to 16th centuries with a mixed ethnic population of Persians, Azeris, Armenians and Georgians, but was finally annexed by Russia in the early 19th century. During its existence it has suffered numerous earthquakes with many buildings having been destroyed, and in previous times was famous for its traditional dancers.
Day 6: Lahic – Shekhi
Drive to Shekhi. Shekhi is one of the most interesting towns in Azerbaijan and this afternoon we visit the medieval fortress and the Khan’s Palace with its elaborate decorations, among other sights. Overnight Issam Hotel or similar. (B)
One of the most historic towns in Azerbaijan, Shekhi lies on the forested slopes of the Caucasus Mountains amongst spectacular scenery. A centre of resistance against the Persians in the 18th century, it broke free to become its own khanate, and today its most impressive attraction if the Khan’s Palace with its attractive garden and colourfully decorated exterior. The building was constructed without the use of a single nail and is one of the most attractive monuments dating back to this era. Not to be missed are the caravanserais – only three remain out of an original five but their state of preservation means that it is not difficult to envisage life here hundreds of years ago. Sheki also holds a number of museums and old mosques within its historic centre, and not far from the town lies the Albanian church at Kish, reputed to be 1500 years old.
Day 7: Kish – Baku
We stop at the village of Kish, site of the oldest church in the Caucasus. From here transfer to the border with Georgia and continue to Tbilisi. The rest of the day is free to relax or explore. Overnight Sharden Hotel or similar. (B)
Georgia’s rather charming capital is a bewildering combination of cultural influences, from Soviet Russia to ancient Persia and Ottoman Turkey, but despite being located between these three giants it has managed to carve out a unique identity for itself. Straddling the Mtkvari River Tbilisi – formerly known as Tiflis by the Russians – has a rather easy going air, with wide boulevards and public squares where old men play board games under the shade of trees, and is a very pleasant place to explore on foot. Georgia’s Christian heritage is evident here and the city is home to a number of fine churches and cathedrals, one of the most impressive of which is the Sioni cathedral dating back to the 13th century. As well as these, a stroll around central Tbilisi will bring you to old caravanserais and bathhouses, synagogues and mosques – Tbilisi is more cosmopolitan than one might think. The city is also home to some excellent museums – the National Museum in particular holds some exquisite examples of early gold jewellery which give credence to the theory that Georgia was the original ‘Land of the Golden Fleece’.
Day 8: Mtskehta – Gudauri
Drive to Mtskhehta, Georgia’s ancient capital where we visit the UNESCO listed Jvari Monastery and the striking Svetitskhoveli Cathedral. From here we head north along the Georgian Military Highway, crossing the Jvari Pass en route to Kazbegi, surrounded by the High Caucasus Mountains. Walk to the picturesque Sameba Church with views of Mt Kazbek in the background. Return to Gudauri for the night. Overnight Hotel Alpina or similar. (B)
Day 9: Gori – Uplistiskhe – Kutaisi
Returning to the lowlands we visit Gori, the birthplace of Stalin, and the cave city of Uplistsikhe, dating back to the 7th century BC. Arriving in Kutaisi we visit the UNESCO listed Gelati Monastery, founded in the 12th century, and the Bagrati Cathedral. We stay tonight in a family run guesthouse where you can expect to be treated to some typical Georgian hospitality. (BD)
Day 10: Svaneti
Drive to the almost mythical region of Svaneti, high in the Caucasus Mountains and home to the Svans, perhaps Georgia’s most traditional ethnic group. We head to the town of Mestia, known for its typical architecture and dominated by defensive stone towers. Overnight local guesthouse. (BD)
The remote region of Svaneti, high up in the Caucasus mountains, is a throwback to a bygone age when this was a truly wild frontier of Europe. Populated by the Svan people, the medieval style villages here consist of stone built houses clustered around imposing watchtowers, most of which are between 800 to 1000 years old and served as a look out post to warn of potential invaders. The Svan people make up a distinct ethnic group and have always been fiercely protective of their independence, functioning as a de facto autonomous state in the days before Soviet rule. They have their own complex set of traditions and customs, and in the past have been known as an aggressive and hostile group, suspicious of outsiders and renowned as warriors. Many of the churches in the region hold fine frescoes but the Svan are more traditional than the Georgians of the lowlands, and in places you can still find evidence of earlier, non-Christian beliefs. As Svaneti was never conquered by the Mongols during their rampage through this region, Svaneti became a repository for many of Georgia’s religious artefacts. The scenery here is truly stunning, as you might expect from Europe’s highest mountain range, with snow capped peaks ranging up to 5000 metres, forests and gushing rivers, and offers excellent opportunities for hiking. Both the landscape and the cultural traditions have led to Svaneti being designated a UNESCO World Heritage Site. Svaneti is also home to Europe’s highest permanently inhabited village Ushguli, situated at 1800m and with great views of the mighty Mt Shkhara, at 5201 metres the highest peak in Georgia. This is a rather magical place, full of the traditions of yesteryear and the hospitable ways of the Svans make this an experience you are unlikely to forget.
Day 11: Svaneti
A full day exploring this stunning region. Drive to the village of Ushguli with its medeival buildings, watchtowers and the Lamaria church, and with a backdrop of Mt Shkhara, Georgia’s highest mountain. We explore the landscape on foot, taking easy walks nearby and also visit a local house to learn more about the unique customs of the Svan people. Overnight local guesthouse. (BD)
Day 12: Tbilisi
Return to Tbilisi, arriving early evening. Overnight Sharden Hotel or similar. (B)
Day 13: Tbilisi
Explore this interesting city and learn about its long and fascinating history. Visit the old town, the Metekhi Temple and the fortress of Narikala before heading to the impressive National Museum with its rich collection of cultural artefacts. We also explore the 11th century Sioni Cathedral and take in the sights of Rustaveli Avenue, Tbilisi’s main thoroughfare. Overnight Sharden Hotel or similar. (B)
Day 14: Yerevan
Transfer to the border with Armenia, and from here continue to Yerevan. The rest of the day is free to relax or explore. Overnight Hotel Metropol or similar.
Yerevan is one of the most attractive cities of the former Soviet Union, with a wide array of interesting monuments and an easy going air that rewards casual exploration. There has been a settlement here since the 8th century BC, but it only became the capital of Armenia in the early twentieth century, when the country itself was subsumed into the Soviet Union. Yerevan is characterised by broad avenues and some of the best Soviet architecture to be found anywhere, as well as old mansions, enormous public squares and numerous statues of locally famous figures. It’s difficult to miss the enormous sculpture of ‘Mother Armenia’ reaching 34 metres into the sky, which replaces the previous statue of Stalin. The cathedral of St Gregory the Illuminator was built with money from the enormous Armenian diaspora to celebrate 1,700 years of Christianity in Armenia. It’s a surprisingly cosmopolitan city as well, perhaps a result of the large Armenian diaspora who return to the motherland to visit relatives, and the area around the Opera House is particularly lively. Yerevan is home to a number of good museums, including the Matendaran, devoted to ancient manuscripts and far more interesting than it may sound. The Genocide Museum gives the visitor an opportunity to understand the difficult and turbulent recent history of the Armenian people – not always an easy place to visit it is crucial in gaining an insight into current Armenian culture.
Day 15: Yerevan
Spend today exploring the charming city of Yerevan. We visit some of its key sites including Republic Square – the city’s most striking public space flanked by impressive buildings, the Matenadaran museum of ancient manuscripts, one of Yerevan’s most interesting and unique sights, and the Genocide Museum for an insight into Armenia’s recent history. Overnight Hotel Metropol or similar. (BLD)
Day 16: Khor Virap – Noravank
After breakfast drive to the monastery of Khor Virap, in a dramatic location with Mt Ararat in Turkey in the background. We explore the monastery, where it is claimed St Gregory was imprisoned for 13 years, then head to Norovank monastery, situated at the edge of the red rocks of Gnishik Gorge. We take lunch in a local café then head to the winery of Areni to sample local wines. Later return to Yerevan on a scenic route through mountains and gorges. Overnight Hotel Metropol or similar. (BL)
Day 17: Sevan – Dilijan – Haghpat
This morning drive to the stunning Lake Sevan, a beautiful spot with the pretty Sevenavank monastery on its shores. From here continue to the town of Dilijan with its well preserved historic centre. Nearby live one of Armenia’s ethnic minorities, the Molokans, and we explore their villages for an insight into a rather unique culture. Later in the day continue to Haghpat monastery, dating back to the 10th century and a UNESCO listed World Heritage Site. We spend the night in either Dilijan or nearby Dzoraget. Overnight Hotel Avan or similar. (BLD)
Dilijan is a charming little town, in Soviet times a health resort and surrounded by woods in the Dilijan National Park. It is known for its well preserved old houses, with elaborate wooden carved balconies overhanging the streets. Part of the town has been preserved and maintained as a historic centre, giving a great glimpse of what much of the region used to look like.
Molokans (in russian they are called ‘Milk drinkers’) are Christian sectarians, the descendants of Russian peasants who refused to obey the rules of the Russian Orthodox church at the end of the 17th century. They call themselves ‘true spiritual Christians’ and were exiled to Armenia in the 19th century, basing themselves here from that point. Keeping more or less the same lifestyle since then they live in harmony with Armenian people, and there are just a small number of Molokan villages in Armenia – and not many more elsewhere in the world.
The monastery of Haghpat was constructed around the 10th century and is a delightful place to explore – a collection of buildings including a library, mausoleums and separate chapels complement the main church as well as an impressive belltower. Overgrown with grass, the grounds surrounding it contain numerous examples of khachkars, a unique Armenian carving of a cross with intricate patterns.
Day 18: Echmiadzin – Zvartnots – Yerevan
We head back to Yerevan, stopping en route to visit communities of Kurdish and Yazidi people with their distinct customs and culture – another hidden side to Armenia. This afternoon we visit the complex of churches at Echmiadzin, a rather stunning ensemble, then head to the ruins of the temple of Zvartnots before ending up in Yerevan for the night. Overnight Hotel Metropol or similar. (BL)
Often described as Armenia’s answer to the Vatican, the collection of churches and monasteries at Echmiadzin are the centre of Armenian Christianity. With some dating back as far as the 5th century this cluster of buildings have immense significance for the culture and heritage of the country and hold a number of relics, including the spear that reputedly pierced Christ on the cross. The area surrounding them contains some excellent examples of khachkars, the uniquely Armenian carved stone crosses. They are still used today for worship and ceremonies and you may be lucky enough to witness a wedding or christening taking place
Day 19: Geghard – Garni - Yerevan
Drive to the monastery of Geghard, another of Armenia’s UNESCO sites and a fascinating place to explore. We then continue to the pagan temple of Garni, very different from other monuments here and perched on the edge of a gorge. We descend by 4WD into the gorge to explore then drive to a local village, where we have lunch in a village house and can learn about Armenian cuisine as we watch and help (if you choose) the meal preparation – a great insight into typical local life and a highlight of the trip. Before arriving back in Yerevan we stop at a brandy distillery to taste one of Armenia’s most famous products. Overnight Hotel Metropol or similar. (BLD)
Geghard means ‘spear’, and this church set in a narrow gorge is reputed to have once contained the spear which pierced the side of Christ on the cross; the spear now lies in the treasury at Echmiadzin. Built up against a cliff face, the main cathedral was constructed in 1215, but the first monastery on the site is thought to date from the 4th century AD. The monastery is decorated with reliefs depicting animals, crosses and geometrical shapes.
Day 20: Yerevan
Transfer to the airport for your onward flight. (B)
Tour Dossier Notes
Airport transfers – Includes arrival and departure transfers regardless of whether you book flights yourself, or we book them for you. If you’re booking them yourself, then please let us know the details so that we can arrange the transfers.
Accommodation – Accommodation as listed in the dossier. The nature of the destinations that we operate may sometimes mean that we need to change hotels, but we’ll always endeavour to keep the same standards. Please be aware that as we operate in many countries where tourism is in its infancy, hotel standards may not be the same as you’re used to elsewhere.
Guides – In most cases you will be accompanied by one guide from start to finish. However there may be occasions when this is not practical, for example if your trip covers a number of different countries. In these cases it often makes more sense to include different guides for each place, to take advantage of their specific knowledge of the destination.
Meals – As listed within the itinerary / dossier (B-Breakfast, L-Lunch, D-Dinner). These will vary from trip to trip– in some areas it makes sense to include all meals while in others there is a good choice of restaurants and we feel people might like to ‘do their own thing’ now and again.
Entrance fees – Entrance fees are listed for those sites that we mention within the itinerary. If there are any other sites that you’d like to see, these would be at your own expense.
Visas – We don’t arrange visas for our travellers, but if an invitation letter is necessary then can request for this to be arranged for you. If you need any advice with visas just give us a call, or alternatively a visa agency such as CIBT can assist.
Airport taxes – If there are any departure taxes to pay that are not included within the cost of your ticket, you’ll need to pay these yourself.